Are mental health messages designed to combat stigma actually increasing it?

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Mental health problems are very common and yet despite widespread publicity campaigns and initiatives to help educate the public, it seems that stigma surrounding mental health problems still persists. Why is that?

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper quotes Rachel Perkins, a clinical psychologist and Mind Champion of the Year who is known for her efforts in getting people with mental illness back to work. According to Dr Perkins, some campaigners who focus on the rights to benefits could be doing more harm than good.

“Instead of talking about the right to work, we are now talking about the right to benefits. I don’t think that’s terribly healthy,” she says.

“Every human being gains their self-worth from being able to contribute to their communities – and let’s face it, the most socially sanctioned way to do that is with work.”

So what about those in the medical profession who suddenly find themselves a victim of mental illness? The findings of a research review commissioned by beyondblue: the national depression initiative which looked at the mental health of medical students and doctors, found that doctors and medical students are reluctant to seek any help for anxiety and depression and that is despite their understanding of the issues surrounding mental health.

According to beyondblue research adviser, Prof David Clarke, it is because they are afraid it will have a negative impact on their career and colleagues may their professional integrity. If the very people who are looking after those with mental illness, who understand it, who know what is involved, are fearful of stigma themselves then what hope is there for the rest of us?

A very recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry this month, which involved questioning almost 2,000 adults, found that stigma towards people with mental health problems has not improved in the US, despite more awareness and understanding of neurobiological reasons for mental illness, and in fact it could be getting worse.

“Prejudice and discrimination in the U.S. aren’t moving” Professor Bernice Pescosolido from Indiana University who led the research is quoted as saying.

“In fact, in some cases, it may be increasing. It’s time to stand back and rethink our approach.”

The researchers are now questioning the effectiveness of various campaigns designed combat stigma. They concluded that a neurobiological understanding of mental illness “translates into support for services but not into a decrease in stigma”.

“Reconfiguring stigma reduction strategies may require providers and advocates to shift to an emphasis on competence and inclusion” they said.

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